Monday, April 11, 2011

Defending the Gospel Colation and the Revival of Reformation Theology It Embodies

David Fitch continues to criticize the revival of traditional Evangelicalism represented by the Gospel Coalition at his blog. He seems to think that something has happened in history that makes the teachings and practices of the Church outdated and in need of changing. What is this "New Thing" that is so significant that it makes Reformation doctrine and biblical preaching no longer "relevant"? Well, it seems to me to be nothing other than the same old "New Thing" that liberal Protestants have been talking about since the early 19th century.

Fitch claims that we need to eschew a defensive position and embark on a journey into "the unexplored territories of the new cultures of post Christendom." Exactly what territory is left unexplored at this stage in history? Are people really different today? Has technology improved us morally? Fitch claims that what he calls "Christendom" is over, but surely that is old news. He also conflates it with "Modernity" even though Modernity has been a centuries-long assault on Christendom.

Let's go point by point through his criticism of the Reformed revival embodied in the Gospel Coalition. He writes:
"1.) If We Purify Our Doctrine The Rest Will Follow. I have observed an impulse in the TGC that says if we just get our doctrine right (which means a certain version of Reformed orthodoxy), then mission and church renewal in post Christendom will follow. But at least in post Christendom (as it is in the N United States urban areas and Canada) this is not enough. This is not 16th century Europe where the majority Catholic population, under the influence of a corrupt Roman Catholicism, need doctrinal renewal. This is not the 1920′s N. America where the majority protestant mainline Christian population, under the influence of a modernist liberalism, need doctrinal renewal. This is post Christendom territory where there are very few Christians of any kind left who have no doctrine to be renewed."
I would reply that if we don't purify our doctrine nothing else matters. Fitch seems to think that purifiying doctrine is an outreach strategy but it is nothing of the kind. It is a matter of internal church renewal and if the church does not have its doctrine right then even if it grows it does not fulfill its mission. This is why all the calls for "exploring new territory" and being sensitive to the prejudices of the contemporary culture are distractions from the true mission which is to "be faithful" before "going" in mission.
"2.) We Must Return to the Reformation. Is the TGC seeking a return to the Reformation? The Reformation cannot be discounted, but neither can it be returned to. The Reformation was built on the back of Christendom. It gave birth to the Sola’s, especially Sola Scripture and Sola Fide which in their time called people to a renewed purity and personal commitment to the gospel. Today however, those same impulses, aligned with the Enlightenment, have given birth to a modernist individualism, Christian relativism, Cartesian rationalism and experientialism that later became modernity, protestant liberalism and indeed the current manifestations of evangelicalism that the TGC appears to be in critique of. We therefore must go beyond the Reformation, not back to it."
He criticizes TGC for wanting to go back to Calvin, but he himself makes much of his "Neo-Anabaptist" approach. Apparently we can go back to the Reformation, after all.

But I would argue that much of Evangelicalism today, including the neo-Anabaptist sub-group, needs to catch up to the Reformation, not "go beyond it." To view the Reformation as an expression of incipient Modernity is to adopt a controversial liberal Protestant version of the narrative of modern church history. I fear that Fitch is taken in by the self-justifying narrative suggested by liberal Protestantism that covers up its radical departure from the Reformers in order to embrace modernity and accommodate itself to the culture. Calvin, especially, had far more in common with medieval scholastic realism than with the nominalism of the late Middle Ages and the Cartesianism of the modern period out of which modernity grew.
"3.) Woman Cannot Be Pastors. Is TGC seeking to enforce a particular reading of the NT that opposes the role of women in authority within church ministry? I have observed the prominence of a particular view of women in ministry in the TGC. I would characterize this view as a.) based in an inerrancy view of the text, which b.) latches on to texts as if they were isolated units of universal teaching on women, which then c.) leads to a blindness to the NT’s overall elevation of women into ministerial authority in the church. To me, this robs the church of the new politic that was birthed in Jesus Christ. It robs our witness to the reconciled relationship born of Jesus Christ in the post-non-Christendom cultures. I personally have spoken against the egalitarian form of politics I believe has been adopted naively by some evangelical feminists at the expense of both women and Christian marriage. Nonetheless, I believe that the NT calls women into the full participation in the new authority of the Kingdom unleashed in the church (this means I affirm the full ordination of women)."
Here Fitch writes as if his were the majority view in the church, whereas it is a sectarian view of a small and declining portion of the ecumenical church. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are joined by a large section of the Anglican Communion, the largest Protestant denomination in the US and by a large remnant (in fact, the alive and growing section) of Protestantism in holding to the 2000 year old consensus view that Christ and the NT do not authorize this novelty.

The traditional interpretation of the NT continues to be the majority interpretation and the segments of the church that embraced the ordination of women in the 1970s are declining numerically and spiritually, embracing the sexual revolution including homosexuality, divorce and the family breakdown, and failing to evangelize the world by simply reflecting back to the pagan culture what it already believes. Can a church reject inerrancy and remain counter-cultural? The votes are still being counted but the early returns suggest that the answer may be no.

I suggest that we wait 20 years and see if the Evangelical groups which have recently embraced women's ordination follow the depressing and debilitating trajectory of the liberal denominations that embraced it 20 years earlier. It is too soon to judge how this novelty will work out. (I am particularly interested to see how this plays out in Pentecostalism.)
4.) The New Perspective is Our Enemy. John Piper and Don Carson have energetically sought to dismantle the New Perspective on Paul (most notably here, here and here). I do not agree with everything written by Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright etc. Nonetheless, I believe it is a mistake to see the New Perspective as the enemy (it’s not even that new any more). I believe there is much to learn from it.
I think the New Perspective is vastly overblown in importance. As historical theology it is highly deficient and has little understanding of the Reformers and tenuous links to Evangelical piety and spirituality. It seems to me to be rather typically modern in its attempt to make Christianity "relevant" by stressing its immanent, social dimensions at the expense of its cosmic, eschatological and personal dimensions. It would be an odd hill to die on.
"5.) The Mega Church Still Makes Sense. Because of the above mentioned Reformed tendencies (exacerbated by American pragmatic evangelicalism) to individualize the gospel, to individualize the reading of Scripture, to individualize salvation, to separate doctrine from “way of life,” the Neo-Reformed do not see the problem of mega church for the future of church engagement with post-Christendom. Mega churches have worked well within Christendom’s modernity."
It is hard to understand why Fitch is so concerned that a revival of Reformed theology would undergird the concept of the mega-church or why the size of churches is such an important non-negotiable. Most mega-churches are seeker-sensitive and would greatly benefit from a dose of solid, Reformed theology, exegetical preaching and counter-cultural ethics. They would no longer be so seeker-sensitive; they would be more God-centered.

Large churches are not the problem; they are a sign of successful mission. Prior to the 20th century they were called cathedrals and they emerge wherever Christianity is successful in evangelizing a large portion of the population. The fact that we live in a largely post-Christian culture is not something to be celebrated but something to be lamented. We should be asking ourselves "Why are we under judgment?" not congratulating ourselves for having become smaller, purer and more righteous.

Of greater concern is the conflating of "Christendom" and "Modernity." Modernity is what triumphed over Medieval Christendom, historically peaking in the Enlightenment. We live in the long sad denouement of Modernity, a culture in decline because cut off from its Christian roots. Fitch seems to have swallowed the progressive myth of history, which is so fundamental to Modernity in always seeing the ideal as out there in the future, something to which we are moving providing we are willing to stop looking back.

Why not admit that we are not progressing, but rather we are regressing (by practically every possible measure) in the West? We live in the culture of death of late modernity and the church is scattered, weak and greatly reduced. In such a situation the rhetoric of "moving forward" is as irrelevant and unhelpful as it was in the days of the 8th century prophets. Much more relevant is looking back to God and God's Word, from which we derive the imperative of repentance and the hope of revival.

2 comments:

Gordonhackman said...

Actually, I think it's not totally fair to say that Dave is simply being critical here. He re-posted this old post on the Gospel Coalition precisely for the purpose of asking people to give him feedback on what ways they though his criticisms and observations had turned out to be correct or not, which is precisely what you've offered here.

Craig Carter said...

Gordon,
Well, fair enough. I guess it boils down to an evaluation of trends. Is the Ecclesia Project or the Emergent Church or the Gospel Coalition or the Left-wing Evangelicalism of Sojourners or the Young, Restless and Reformed - are any of these movements true renewal movements or are they signs of decadence or a mixture of both?

In my opinion the way forward runs through the Bible, the Fathers, the Schoolmen, the Reformers, the Revivalists and the Modern Missionary Movement. Any movement that does not sink its roots down into Bible and Tradition is decadent. Does TGC do this? As time goes by it seems clearer and clearer to me that it does.